Patriots have found a familiar winning formula: vicious defense, pounding ground game, and some well-timed throws from Mac Jones

Matthew Judon and the Patriots hounded Sam Darnold, who was sacked once (here), and intercepted three times. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

This time, Sam Darnold didn’t see ghosts. He saw monsters.

The Patriots, winners of three in a row and four of five after Sunday’s 24-6 win over the Panthers, continued with a formula that has become familiar: a vicious defense, a similarly vicious running game, and a few well-timed completions from rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

The Patriots defense tormented Darnold like he was still wearing a Jets uniform, holding the hapless quarterback to 172 passing yards — 32 in the first half — while picking him off three times. The Panthers managed just 240 total yards, 65 before the half.

The Panthers should have played backup P.J. Walker, who at least would have been unpredictable. Darnold now has a touchdown and 10 interceptions in four career games against the Patriots.


Meanwhile, the Patriots ran for a season-high 151 yards against a Panthers defense that entered the game ranked second overall in the NFL. Jones threw one touchdown pass, to Hunter Henry, while completing 12 of 18 throws for 139 yards on a windy afternoon.

The Patriots are now 4-0 on the road, and at 5-4 are just a half-game behind the Bills in the AFC East, with their two annual matchups still to come. The Patriots have found their identity, and with it, their season has turned from frustrating to hopeful, and maybe something more.

Some further thoughts, upon immediate review …



(Players suggested in Unconventional Preview: Stephon Gilmore, Shaq Thompson, Matthew Judon)

Rhamondre Stevenson: The rookie running back had his best day as a pro, with 106 total yards on a dozen touches. He was a force on the Patriots’ first scoring drive, getting four straight touches: a weaving 41-yard catch and run on a beautifully lofted Jones pass in the flat, followed by runs of 6 and 2 yards, and then on third and 2, a 13-yard burst in which he throttled the Panthers’ Sean Chandler with a Walter Payton-caliber stiff arm. Stevenson accounted for 62 yards on the 8-play, 75-yard drive, but he didn’t get to put the exclamation point on the possession with Damien Harris running in from 3 yards for the score. Both Stevenson and Harris got dinged up late in the game. Hopefully neither injury is serious, because they’ve become a 1-2 punch to be reckoned with.


Brandon Bolden: And then there’s the Patriots’ other back, who — despite fans’ understandable frustrations with Josh McDaniels calling his number on third and short from time to time — has done a fine job of filling James White’s role. Bolden finished with 54 rushing yards on eight carries and added 27 yards on two receptions, averaging an impressive 8.1 yards per touch. His biggest play was a 28-yard grab on a lofted Jones pass to convert a third and 5 in the second quarter. Bolden already has a career high in receptions (22) and receiving yardage (189). He’s Exhibit A on why Bill Belichick emphasizes having quality depth.


Christian Barmore: The rookie defensive lineman produced the most dominant one-tackle performance you’ll ever see. He twice made plays to help thwart the Panthers on a short field, batting down a pass in the second quarter that might have gone for a long gainer to Christian McCaffrey (the Panthers settled for a field goal), then later in the same quarter, chasing Darnold out of the pocket to force an incompletion on third and 24 (the Panthers settled for another field goal). He also was in pursuit of Darnold in the third quarter when he heaved up J.C. Jackson’s pick-6, and later broke up another pass. Belichick raved about his performance and work ethic after the game. The Patriots had a pretty decent draft this year, don’t you think?



The less said about the first quarter, the better. The Patriots committed four accepted penalties (they’d had five total in the first quarter all season). Jones was hit on two of his first eight dropbacks; on one, the Panthers’ Brian Burns speed-rushed passed Hunter Henry and a peacefully napping Isaiah Wynn to crush the quarterback from the blind side and force a lost fumble. The Patriots’ first three possessions went punt, punt, fumble. They snapped out of the mistake-prone malaise, but this team still needs to be better about taking care of the small details before they become big problems.



Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson vs. Panthers receiver D.J. Moore.

Old friend Stephon Gilmore got his interception, picking off Jones with a beautiful read of a play that probably looked rather familiar. But the best cornerback on the field was one still with the Patriots. Jackson, who was sick during the week with what he said was strep throat, put the Patriots up 21-6 in the third quarter with an 88-yard interception return of an atrocious Darnold throw. He got his second of the game — and 22d of his career, tying him with Asante Samuel for 11th-most in Patriots history — on a pass forced in Moore’s direction in the end zone in the fourth quarter. Moore, who was nowhere near open on the play, is a terrific receiver who had a rough day due largely to his quarterback’s ineptitude. He finished with three catches for 32 yards, taking a hellacious shot in the ribs from Myles Bryant on one of his grabs.


(Predicted final score: Patriots 34, Panthers 10)

(Final score: Patriots 24, Panthers 6)

Tough game for Jakobi Meyers, who committed a false start penalty, tripped with open field in front of him on a punt return, and juggled his only catch of the game, costing the Patriots a probable first down on their first possession … Tougher game for the CBS broadcast team of Greg Gumbel and Adam Archuleta. Gumbel was slow to identify injured players and thought it was Justin Bethel rather than Jackson on the pick-6. Archuleta said that Meyers, who has more receiving yards without a touchdown in NFL history, was Jones’s favorite red zone target. To his credit, he later corrected it. … Jamie Collins is still a ridiculous athlete, huh? From about 5 yards away, he plucked a Darnold pass out of thin air, like Bill Russell going up to snatch a rebound.

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